Interval training for runners

Interval training is one of the best techniques for runners to improve their speed.

Sport and exercise science expert Dr Keith Tolfrey examines the growing evidence of the benefits of high-intensity interval training.

What is interval training?

An interval training workout involves alternating periods of high-intensity effort with periods of low-intensity effort, which is called the recovery. For runners, this would typically involve interspersing bouts of fast running with slower running.

What happens to your body during the recovery phase?

The recovery phase is a really important part of interval training. The stop-and-start pattern trains your body to recover quickly between bursts of faster running, which, over time, will gradually increase your ability to run faster for longer.

What are the health benefits of interval training?

The long-term health benefits from interval training are similar to those achieved from most types of longer-duration, moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, namely a lower risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and some cancers.

Can interval training help me lose weight?

During the high-intensity phase, your body burns mainly carbs for energy but during the recovery, your body burns mainly fat to produce the energy needed to help your body recover from the intense effort. This process can continue for hours after training, which can help you lose weight, as long as you’re also eating  healthily.

What research is there on interval training?

There is growing evidence to support that interval training might be as effective, if not more so, than longer, moderate-intensity aerobic workouts. Researchers at McMaster University in Canada found that three 20-minute sessions of interval training a week provided the same benefits as 10 hours of steady exercise over a two-week period.

How can interval training help my running?

Interval training is one of the most effective exercises for improving speed. Learning to run faster is a gradual process. Alternating bursts of fast running with a recovery period trains your muscles to work more efficiently and economically at higher speeds. Another benefit is that your routine moderately paced runs will feel easier.

How often should I do interval training?

You shouldn’t be doing interval training every day. Intervals are hard work and you need to give your body time to recover. If you don’t, you’re likely to lose motivation, tire yourself out and possibly injure yourself. If you’re used to running three days a week, you could set aside one of those runs for an interval training session. For a 25-minute interval run, download Couch to 5K+: speed.

Is interval training safe?

Interval training is hard work on the whole body, but particularly the heart, lungs and muscles. If you’re out of shape or you’ve not exercised for a while, you should get the all clear from your GP before starting. It is generally advisable to have a good level of overall aerobic fitness before performing high-intensity training of any kind.

Page last reviewed: 31/05/2014

Next review due: 31/05/2016


How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 249 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating

Chrissie Wellington's running secrets

Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington reveals her running secrets

'I love running to music'

Justin took up running after a long break from exercise. He tells how music has improved his running

'How I caught the running bug'

Aimee never enjoyed exercise until she started running. She tells what keeps her going

Running to music

Running to music can help you run more efficiently and for longer. Find out how to create your own playlist

5K+ running podcasts for C25K graduates

Take your running to the next level with new podcasts for Couch to 5K graduates

Get running with Couch to 5K

Our C25K plan is designed to get just about anyone off the couch and running 5km in nine weeks

Strength and Flex

Download our Strength and flexibility podcast series and get a free personal trainer

Find a Race

Ready for a challenge? Of course you are!
Enter your location below to search thousands of races and find the right event for you.

Powered by Find a Race